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Act 2 in Syria: Now comes the hard part

Barack Obama

Barack Obama

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Updated: October 15, 2013 6:39AM

Now comes the hard part on Syria.

Even while a diplomatic opening emerged this week to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, the skeptics, President Barack Obama included, have made clear just how difficult that will be.

The skeptics are right, of course.

The chief concern is whether Russia and Syria’s embrace of the idea is simply a ruse, a stalling tactic to slow down a United States president intent on punishing Syria.

The challenge, then, is to strike the right balance — not to let skepticism slip too quickly into cynicism, a fall that could prevent the U.S. and the world from taking full advantage of this genuine diplomatic opening.

It is crucial that the U.S. and its allies let this diplomatic opening run its course while also giving Russia and Syria very little leeway to play games with the United States.

The work starts in earnest on Thursday in Geneva when Secretary of State John Kerry begins talks with Russia on that country’s proposal to have Syria give up its chemical weapons.

A smell test is in order here, designed to quickly check Russia and Syria’s true intentions:

♦ Timetable for weapons removal. Russia and Syria must agree to a reasonable but constrained timetable for Syria turning over its chemical weapons stockpile. As Kerry said on Tuesday, “It has to be swift. It has to be real, it has to be verified.”

The obstacles are huge, which is why the leash must be so tight. Even under the best of circumstances, collecting chemical weapons and destroying them can be a gargantuan, complex task. And Syria, in year three of a civil war, likely represents the worst of circumstances. The process, if it’s even possible — it would require Syria to disclose details of all aspects of its chemical weapons program — will likely take years. On Tuesday, Syria for the first time came clean about its possession of chemical weapons. This is a significant breakthrough, no doubt prompted by Obama’s threat of a military strike, but one that must be followed up with full compliance by Syria.

♦ Timetable for Syrian embrace of international ban on chemical weapons. Syria’s foreign minister on Tuesday also said the country hoped to become a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, another major breakthrough likely attributable to Obama’s threat of a military strike. To date, 189 countries have signed the treaty that bans the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. ABC News reported on Tuesday that Syria committed to revealing weapons sites but did not explicitly say Syria would sanction their destruction. That must be made explicit.

♦ A United Nations resolution with teeth. The U.S. and its allies want a binding resolution under which Syria would turn over its chemical weapons to include a threat of force if Syria fails to act. That’s a framework Russia and Syria currently reject. If it becomes clear this week that Russia and Syria won’t budge, there is little reason to continue on this diplomatic path.

As the U.S. quickly assesses its odds of diplomatic success, we cheer on the development of a backup plan in Congress by a bipartisan group of senators. They are at work on a new resolution that would give diplomacy a limited time to work but ultimately authorize force if the U.N. Security Council comes up short.

A tight leash, tight deadlines and a dose of skepticism. Time will tell whether these three ingredients are just what Syria needs.

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